CBS’ announcement today that Comedy Central rock star Stephen Colbert would replace David Letterman as host of its late-night show in 2015 caps a whirlwind week in which the network jumped from being just a little footnote in the coverage of The Battle Of The Two Jimmys to the undisputed star of the late-night drama. But don’t get out of your seats yet – the drama’s not over. CBS execs are thought to be frustrated with Craig Ferguson’s show that follows Dave’s (it is co-produced by CBS and Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, which will depart as Late Show producer when its boss retires.) Ferguson’s numbers have not broadened out as CBS had hoped, and there are rumblings that CBS isn’t done yet and we should expect another move to come. On the bright side, Ferguson will now benefit from the lucrative (reportedly in the neighborhood of $5M) succession clause in his contract, CBS having made its other choice.
Asked about Ferguson’s future at the network, CBS chief Leslie Moonves today acknowledged Ferguson’s contract is up soon, adding, “we’re having conversations” and “there is nothing to report now.”
Moonves being a confirmed showman, his network went into information lock-down the instant Letterman announced his retirement last Thursday. Since then, until this morning’s Colbert news, network execs approached by reporters with succession questions took on the cautious reserve usually seen in better breeds of canines when offered a piece of green leafy vegetable by a stranger of whose bona fides they are not convinced. The reporters, who had flung themselves at their computers and pounded out their Dave Is Leaving copy in an ecstasy of Era-Ending Grief, tore through the list of supposed candidates, most of whom were dismissable:
* Leno, who went out on top in the late-night ratings — a storyline worth sticking with.
* Chelsea Handler, who had a jump-start over the others, having already begun her E! Is a Sad, Sad Place To Live Tour in search of a new late-night job, but who is one of those tough modern female comics, with their sardonic eyes and their freedom of speech and breadth of vocabulary, which made her a lousy fit for Moonves, who is passionate about legacy and prestige.
* Neil Patrick Harris, consummate song-and-dance man and a longtime player at The Les Moonves Repertoire Theatre, who, though a much better fit than, say Handler, took himself out of the running when he said late-night would be an insane amount of work, and he hadn’t actually been approached.
* Tina Fey, a member of The Lorne Michaels Repertory Theatre, who would have had to competing against Michaels’ exec produced The Tonight Show, now hosted by her former SNL Weekend Update partner Jimmy Fallon.
* Louis C.K., who only made the list because, on his FX comedy, he once played a version of himself who was in line to replace Letterman, and the media loves art-imitates-life gags.
* Jimmy Kimmel, who only made the list because he told TV Guide last month, “I’d definitely consider it,” when asked if he’d go to CBS to replace Dave, adding, “I am loyal to ABC and grateful to them for giving me a shot… I’m not looking to flee. But just getting a call from Dave would be big for me. So it’s definitely something I would listen to.”
But, in that interview, Kimmel inadvertently explained why he was not the right choice — nor were any of the others — when he said, “You can do these shows one of two ways: you can hang back and interview the guest or you can put a lot of work into it,” describing himself and Fallon as put-a-lot-of-work-into-it guys, meaning both favored lots of bits — songs, games, videos, stunts. That’s the kind of thing a young David Letterman brought to late-night TV — decades ago. Both Jimmys have great comedic skills — and Fallon in particular has genius musical stripes — but neither is good at an interview, which is something Letterman excels at when he’s engaged. Dave’s the opposite of the Jimmys: He’s a guy who doesn’t do sit-downs with the press much, preferring to do his talking directly to his audience on his show — like he did last Thursday when surprised everyone by announcing on-camera that he was packing up in 2015.
It’s the same thing he famously did in October 2009 when, coming back from commercial break after his monologue, he began to tell viewers “a story” about a former CBS News producer’s attempt to extort money from him and how he had tell a grand jury “all of the creepy things I had done…and the creepy stuff was: I have had sex with women who work for me on this show.” And then, a couple days later Dave came right back at it, delivering an on-camera apology to his wife. And — in a lesson to all those TV industry navel-lint gazers who said the revelation would sink Dave’s career, some of whom are still covering late-night TV — Dave clocked a whopping 6 million viewers both nights.
Not coincidentally, Letterman’s strategy is one Colbert executed brilliantly this month when #CancelColbert became a top trending topic on Twitter for more than two days running. The campaign erupted after his show’s official Twitter account tweeted out-of-context a joke he used on the show to t mock the owner of the Washington, DC football team for his refusal to change the team’s name and then start a foundation for Native Americans, using the racist team name in the name of the foundation. All that day, Colbert declined to discuss it with the press and Comedy Central went into information lockdown. That night, on his show, Colbert announced:
“Folks — I’m still here. The dark forces trying to silence my message of core conservative principles mixed with youth-friendly product placement have been thwarted!” He devoted the entire program to rebutting the campaign to kill his show, at the end of which he and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone blew up @ColbertReport — the network’s official Twitter account for the program, from which had come the offending tweet. “The Interweb tried to swallow me whole. But I am proud to say that I got lodged in its throat and it hacked me back up, like a hastily chewed chicken wing,” Colbert told fans who’d tuned in to see how he would respond to the kerfuffle.
And that is what makes Colbert, unlike all others, “the perfect successor for David Letterman, and the perfect guy for CBS,” as Moonves told Deadline this morning.